Webber: beyond the circuit

Life after F1 ... and how Aussie drivers give him the grits

TOBY HAGON

A YEAR out of the cockpit appears to have been kind to Mark Webber. Gone is the gaunt, tightly drawn face that came with an ultra-lowcalorie diet and intense physical stress. The nine-time Grand Prix winner and 2015 World Endurance Champion looks relaxed and healthy, his affable demeanour in contrast to the occasionally testy, intense character some will recall from his Formula 1 days.

Yet the mere mention of driving standards in Australia is enough to bring back a flash of that old terseness. Webber reckons we’re past the point of no return and is frustrated by the low driving standards on Australian roads.

“We can’t educate from here-on; it’s going to be very, very hard,” says Webber of Australian drivers, citing the poor driving culture and low skill level compared with drivers in Europe.

He’s talking from experience, having recently stepped off a plane from his home base in the UK. Webber is in Australia for a break and to work with Porsche, the brand for which he’s an ambassador.

First stop is Mount Panorama for the Bathurst 12 Hour race, where he’ll put big smiles on some punters’ faces courtesy of some Porsche hot laps, something that involved the staccato crawl from Sydney across the Blue Mountains.

While Webber reinforces he is a “proud Australian” who loves coming home, he’s never been shy of criticising the authorities for their blinkered focus on speed. “I’ve never seen so many different speed zones in such a short space … 70km/h, 80, 60 … well, that’s all revenue raising,” he says, exasperated.

He also highlights the mismatch of cars and trucks, in particular the difference in stopping distances.

We’re Waymo safe

A fatal collision between an Uber-owned autonomous Volvo XC90 and a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, has prompted the boss of Google’s rival autonomous vehicle unit, Waymo, to big-note its tech. CEO of Waymo, John Krafcik, said “we have a lot of confidence our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one.” Meanwhile, lidar manufacturer Velodyne, which supplied the sensor in the Uber Volvo, has also pointed fingers, stating “our lidar doesn’t make the decision to put on the brakes”.

Ion maiden

Hyundai has placed 70 Ioniq hybrid hatches with fleet buyers such as the Australian Red Cross, the South Australian Government and Northern Alliance Victoria. Feedback from the trial, which started in February, will be used to develop the brand’s future fleet strategy. The Ioniq went on sale overseas in 2016 and will arrive in Oz mid-year in hybrid, plug-in hybrid and pure electric forms. The hybrid version uses 3.2L/100km on the official test and has a 104kW 1.6-litre four-cylinder with an electric motor that gives it a combined total of 265Nm.

The other part of Webber’s Porsche job is providing feedback on soon-to-arrive new models, such as the GT2 RS. While he won’t test every vehicle, he’ll have a say in some of the most important ones, including the upcoming Mission E, Porsche’s first pure EV.

“I’m actually going to drive it when I get back to Europe,” he says. “We’re very, very excited about it and [are] finding some nice wins along the way … it’s going really well.”

These days he’s clearly content to take things more slowly. Asked about a 2014 tweet where he suggested he would soon tackle the Bathurst 12 Hour, the response is swift. “Nah, it’s not happening,” says Webber, admitting he gets heat from his father, Alan, to stay away. “It’s too dangerous, too many amateurs … and there’s actually too many safety cars, too.”

And too slow, such is the step down from Formula 1. “It’s frustrating driving an LMP1 car; what’s it going to be like driving touring cars?”

No doubt it’s also frustrating for the Supercar/GTE teams that have approached him.

Giving tin-tops a miss could also be a smart move when it comes to Webber’s reputation.

Australian champions as diverse as Sir Jack Brabham, Alan Jones and Wayne Gardner have returned from overseas to try their hand at Australian touring car racing. None have enjoyed anything like the success they did overseas.

Webber clearly thrives on pressure and feels some of that has been diluted with the modern path to the motorsport pinnacle. Rather than track time, it can be lounges and screens that can help prepare drivers for the circuit, something Webber believes is “softening” the driver skillset.

“That’s why I love MotoGP, because you can’t have a simulator, you learn by breaking your collarbone – which is brilliant – where in cars you don’t.”

Yet while technology doesn’t always change motorsport for the better, Webber says Australians desperately need it on our roads. “This is the best country in the world to have autonomous cars because everyone is doing the same speed anyway,” he says.

“I’ve never seen so many speed zones in such a short space ... that’s all revenue raising”

Webber thinks the tech has the potential to reduce aggro behind the wheel too. “Why is there so much road rage here?” he asks with a smile of disbelief. “It should be the cruisiest country to drive around ever.”

At least he’ll soon have a 911 GT2 RS at home in Europe, ready for the occasional blast on a (loosely policed) twisting road in the south of France.

TOBY HAGON